Turning back time with Quadruplex videotape
August 23, 2013 9:42 PM   Subscribe

A clip of the Edsel Show (Oct 1957) is the oldest surviving broadcast video recorded electronically to videotape, a turning point in an era where TV shows were preserved on film (Feb 1958) and kinescope (Sep 1960). Kinescope was achieved by training a film camera on a television monitor, showing camera cuts just as the audience at home would see it. Some studios were able to print video directly onto the film (Feb 1956) with great results, achieving something close to video. The year 1958 saw the earliest surviving color video clips, such as an address by President Eisenhower (May 1958), An Evening With Fred Astaire (Oct 1958, restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive), and Dinah Shore (Nov 1958).

What made this kind of quality suddenly available? It was the development of Quadruplex: 2-inch wide reel-to-reel tape manufactured by Ampex and played on huge machines originally priced at $400,000, adjusted. These recorders worked at a horizontal resolution of 400 lines, double that of the VHS tape format that would arrive 20 years later.

Not much of the early videotape recordings exist since the reels were each over $2000 adjusted, leading studios to reuse the tape and rely on kinescope, but falling costs by the late 1960s gave us familiar cultural icons such as Laugh In (Feb 1968), the Dead Parrot Sketch (Nov 1969), and news events like the 1968 MLK assassination (Apr 1968). All of these were mastered on Quadruplex tapes. Video enthusiasts are playing an important part in preserving television culture where it's not economically viable, adopting and restoring these 1960s machines. It's yielded many obscure bits from decades past such as commercials reels (1970) and local newscasts (Mar 1969).

Perhaps the next milestone in video production was video effects. Only simple effects existed in the 1960s, but the tide shifted in the 1970s. Generation X'ers well remember the psychedelic Electric Company (Mar 1974) video effects. They were done by the Scanimate system, which established the look of 1970s and early 1980s broadcast television. It was a one-ton machine consisting of racks of oscillators, controls, and patch cords. And, yep, it's a videophile who owns one. Dave Sieg has the world's last working Scanimate in his Tennessee home.
posted by crapmatic (21 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Wrong link on Electric Company above... I meant it to be this one. Sorry!
posted by crapmatic at 9:55 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The next milestones were 1 inch type C--which had higher quality, smaller tape and much lower cost--and the Sony Video Rover/Portapak, which made location video journalism possible and marked the obsolescence of the phrase "film at 11."

Previously about the Scanimate.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:29 PM on August 23, 2013

Those 2 inch reels were heavy-about 30 pounds. My first TV job was librarian, humping the tapes from the shelves to the tape room and back. Up and down the stairs... Showbiz!
posted by Marky at 10:44 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's also surviving broadcast footage from Nazi Germany. I think the recording of the broadcast was made to film rather than tape.
posted by zippy at 11:15 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's just kinescope, but definitely cutting edge.

One super-cool thing that didn't fit my post was the 1922 Kodachrome motion picture, basically a motion picture that was somehow shot onto Kodachrome. That's some damn good film, so the results are astounding. It's not the earliest color motion picture, though, Edward Turner did that one in 1901.
posted by crapmatic at 12:13 AM on August 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Really great post!
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:52 AM on August 24, 2013

Oh, that callback to the PortaPak really takes me back...
posted by mikelieman at 2:03 AM on August 24, 2013

Whoa, the audio quality is really fantastic. I mean the video is obviously much better than kinoscope, but the sound is really what I'm lost in right now.

Why do I suddenly want to buy an Edsel?
posted by sixohsix at 4:30 AM on August 24, 2013

In my unwilling role as the archivist for my dead poet mentor/antagonist, I've had to do some conversions from U-matic cassettes, which I expected to be a difficult chore, but found that U-matic is not so far out of circulation as I'd expected. The results were about as good what could be produced by the cameras available to rank amateurs at the time, but for tapes that sat unplayed in a moldy basement for thirty-one years, they held up amazingly well.
posted by sonascope at 4:48 AM on August 24, 2013

What an interesting post, always learn something new here at MeFi.
...and I must say the Fred Astaire clip is the bees knees.
posted by quazichimp at 4:55 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Now my son plays "ancient" tapes (mostly from the 80s and 90s) on our old VHS VCR that he keeps in his room. He loves it because it is old school. He loves it even more because it is able to play the the video of his grandmother dancing at a wedding. She died young of breast cancer and only touched him as a loving hand on my wife's belly.

Today, seemingly everyone has a gadget in their pocket ready to shoot high quality video at any time. Videos from multiple angles are often available for anything of note that happens. It wasn't always so. The first video tape machines were huge and expensive but they paved the road that lead to video of news almost as it happened, instead of waiting until late in the evening, after the film was developed. It lead further to home camcorders that allowed regular people to record the sights and sounds of a baby's first tubby, a toddler's first steps and a grandmother's last dance.
posted by double block and bleed at 6:12 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The history of Ampex itself is rich and chock full of Silicon Valley history with a touch of Hollywood on the side.

The earliest magnetic recorders from AMPEX were reverse-engineered from German "Magnetophone" devices used by the Nazis to broadcast Hitler's speeches from remote cities (and allegedly to keep the Allies guessing as to his location). Brought to America, the recorders were ignored by everyone except Bing Crosby, who loathed live radio and wished to prerecord his shows at a more leisurely pace.

The history only continues from there including the development of the Quadruplex with a young engineer named Ray Dolby, who went on to his own fame and fortune in Hollywood sound engineering.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

(BTW, the Edsel Show itself is probably worth of another rabbit hole itself. It was the culmination of $400 million dollars in R&D and marketing from Ford (2.7 billion dollars today) and the birth of "event" marketing where new products are hyped before the introduction. The Edsel is considered one of the largest product introduction flops in American history (and no related MeFi posts? Really?))
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:59 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

and no related MeFi posts? Really?

It's still that painful. We just can't relive the horror of the toilet seat on the front.

Too soon. It's too soon.
posted by sonascope at 8:19 AM on August 24, 2013

I was going to just glance at these for a second, but then Fred Astaire dancing.

And at the start of the other clip, Frankie with his WTF-am-I-doing-peddling-cars face.

As a entertainment nerd/PR person from Michigan this is fascinating to me on many levels. (Of course, I think my parents were primarily GM people, so yeah, Dinah ...)
posted by NorthernLite at 8:52 AM on August 24, 2013

The Eisenhower clip makes one appreciate the teleprompter.
posted by glhaynes at 9:38 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Fred Astaire show is something else. The dancing is awesome but the car commercial stuff is just...i don't know the word. It's so weird to see that guy talking and hearing that very radio announcer voice. The whole thing is like time traveling.
posted by sio42 at 9:47 AM on August 24, 2013

The first car my dad let me drive was a 58 Edsel. Horrible pale institutional green. I then went modern: 59 Edsel in puke pinkbeige.

Both took a parking lot to turn around and I could barely see over the steering wheel since I was hardly 5' tall. I can promise you that there's nothing lovely about Edsels except they point out the errors of marketing something that is simultaneously ahead of its time and totally missing the point.
posted by mightshould at 5:11 PM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

More on the history from Quadruplex Park.
posted by morganw at 7:49 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Fred Astaire show is something else. The dancing is awesome but the car commercial stuff is just...i don't know the word. It's so weird to see that guy talking and hearing that very radio announcer voice. The whole thing is like time traveling.

As Zapp Brannigan might say, it's all about enunciation and vocal pro-jec-tion-ahh. There were no lav mics- you had to practically scream so that boom mic could year you.
posted by gjc at 7:47 AM on August 25, 2013

That tape vs. kinescope comparison is very illuminating. I knew that kinescope was the pre-videotape method of preserving television programs, and I knew it could produce some problematic lighting artifacts, but I guess I never realized how much fidelity was lost in the process. Not having been around to watch TV then, I suppose I just assumed that fidelity used to be much poorer.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:31 PM on August 25, 2013

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